You would think that growing up in the Basque Country in the 1980´s with all the political violence and high drug consumption would have been a risky business. And perhaps it was. But that is not how I remember my childhood. Our parents were not helicopter parents like we seem to be now, constantly worrying about the safety of our children. My friends and I were always out playing football, climbing walls in Monte Urgull near the Old Town of San Sebastian, playing Basque pelota (a court sports played with a hard ball using one’s hand that was an official Olympic sport once, in the 1900 Paris Games), or hanging out at one of the port´s piers and eating whatever we fancied and that we bought with our weekend pocket money. My friends would usually buy some palmeras de chocolate (palmiers covered in chocolate) but I was always fascinated by a little cake filled with a sort of hardened custard called Euskal pastela or Gateau Basque. We would sit by one of the piers and enjoy our meriendas (afternoon snack) whilst planning the next challenge, adventure, or mischief.
Traditionally, this dry cake was shared with the whole family after Sunday mass. The first reference to this cake was known as “Biskotxak” and dates to 1830. Apparently, it made its appearance in Cambo-les-Bains, a spa town in the Basque Country thanks to Marianne Hirigoyen, a pastry chef from Cambo who sold her products in the markets of Bayonne. She immediately enjoyed great success and was known as the “Basque of the cakes”. Marianne Hirigoyen inherited the recipe from her mother and then she passed it on to her daughters, Elisabeth and Anne Dibar, who were nicknamed as the Biscotx sisters from “etxeko-biskotxa” (the house biscuit). The sisters became the guardians of the Basque cake and perpetuated the tradition in their shop, La Pâtisserie Marie-Anne. In 1994, some passionate people created an association called Eguzkia to promote the purity of the ingredients and to fight against industrially manufactured Basque cakes.
Some years ago, we took the kids to Cambo-les-Bains. We bought some artisan Basque cakes from a village market stall and went to a park to enjoy them. When I bit into my cake, it took me directly back to my childhood and the port of San Sebastian (probably this cake was much better than the one I used to have, but in my memory they were as good as this one).
Last week I made some Basque cakes for my kids and took them with me when I picked them up from school and kindergarten. They smashed them in no time!
Everyone uses slightly different recipes and ingredients to give the cake a unique touch. So, here is mine:
For the pastry base:
- 300 g unsalted butter at room temperature
- 3 egg yolks + 1 whole egg
- 300 g sugar
- 450 g all-purpose flour
- A pinch of salt
- 1 Lemon zest
(Sometimes I play around with more traditional flours like whole meal or spelt and brown sugar, but these can be more frustrating.)
For the pastry cream:
- 1/2 litre whole milk
- 3 egg yolks + 1 egg
- 80 g sugar
- 50 g all-purpose flour
- 4 tablespoon rum
1. How to make the pastry base
On a clean table, make a mountain with the flour and make a hole in the middle. Then, add the egg yolks, the whole egg, the butter, sugar, lemon zest and salt, and mix it well, but not too much. Once smooth, cover it with a cloth and let it rest for an hour.
Then check the pastry base and make sure it does not stick.
Form a ball, cover it with a cloth and let it rest in the fridge until the next day.
2. How to make the pastry cream
In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks, whole egg and sugar together until you get a foamy consistency. Then pour it into a pan and add the flour. Heat it until it turns into a warm homogeneous mix. In a different pan, bring the milk to a boil, and when it is ready, add it to the mix little by little and whisking it constantly.
Bring the mix to a boil and add four spoonfuls of rum. Reduce the temperature, but keep boiling the mix for 3-4 minutes more.
Pour the mix into a large bowl and let it cool at room temperature.
Then, let it rest in the fridge until the next day.
3. How to assemble and decorate
Split the pastry base in two, forming two balls. Then take one of the balls.
Flour the table, the dough, and the rolling pin.
Roll the dough until you have a flat 0.5 cm pastry base.
Place the pastry base in a 26 cm circumference and 3 cm height cake mold. Pour in the pastry cream and spread to about 2cm from the edge.
Roll the second dough and lay it gently on top of the cream.
Pinch the edges of both pastry bases to close the cake.
With a fork or knife, personalize the cake and brush the top part with a whisked egg yolk for a lovely shiny rustic color.
Heat up the oven to 170 degrees (Celsius) for 10 minutes and then bake the cake for half an hour, or until it shows a golden color.
Once it is ready, let it rest for half an hour and it will be ready to serve. However, as it happens with soups and many other dishes, the flavors of the cake are richer the following day.